Antarctica: The Bottom of the World

Antarctica | BCBusiness
King penguins are one of myriad bird species that will greet you in the frigid Antarctic.

Antarctica is a ‘hang on for your life’ experience that you’ll never forget

Even before our zodiac hit the beach on the island of South Georgia, we heard the incessant squawking and smelled the putrid stench of the hundreds of thousands of King penguins. This remote island at the bottom of the world is a mere 200-by-40 kilometres, but home to more birds than nearly all other bits of land anchored in the world’s oceans.

With relative ease we picked our way among the herds of seals and massive colony of penguins that were strutting their stuff before a majestic backdrop of glaciers, surf and mountain peaks. The adult King penguins completely ignored our presence while their yearlings tried to get up close and personal.

At different ports of call on South Georgia we were introduced to about eight different kinds of penguins. The comical birds share the island with aggressive fur seals and gargantuan elephant seals, which can reach lengths of almost five metres and weigh up to 3,000 kilograms. Travel in the Antarctic spring (late November to early December) and you will witness the giant males fighting for territory, yet the elephant seals can also be unbelievably placid, making it easy to get extremely close. If we sat in one place long enough, baby elephant seals would approach and try to suckle our boots. Ironically, it was the much smaller fur seals that were concerning, and we had to bang rocks together or pick alternate walking routes to keep the protective adults at bay.

STAY The Akademik Ioffe is a research ship, but is comfortable and accommodates 100 guests. A good night’s rest hinges on putting away before bed anything that may roll around (18 nights from $11,190;

SAVOUR Food on board is simple, but tasty—and there’s lots of it. Dinner is a soup and a choice of two entrées. There is still plenty of fresh fruit available at the end of the journey. And yes, there’s a well-stocked bar on board, too.

SEE On West Point Island (one of the Falklands), Black-browed albatross and Rockhopper penguins nest on the side of a cliff. There’s no need for a telephoto lens; expert staff get you close and tell you how to get the best shot.

SOUVENIR In Ushuaia find lovely sculptures of penguins, or pick up a T-shirt or hat onboard. The real shopping is in Buenos Aires. Known as the “Paris of the Southern Hemisphere,” it’s a great place to spend a few days before or after your trip.

In the early 1900s, when most of the world’s population wasn’t aware of South Georgia’s existence, its north coast was home to a couple of important and thriving whaling stations. One, named Grytviken, is the resting place of famous Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. (The island’s three permanent residents maintain the tiny church graveyard where he lies.) Today the former station is a hauntingly forsaken, rusting spot marked by dilapidated buildings, ships run aground, the detritus of hulking marine equipment as well as large containers—some marked simply “whale oil” or “blubber.” Yet even among such ruin, the awesome sense of peacefulness, of emptiness, of a place still predominantly untouched by mankind, is pervasive here. It’s impossible to ignore its profound appeal.

It wasn’t a quick commute to this, the world’s seventh continent, where there is no permanent community. We made our way from Vancouver to Ushuaia (the southernmost city in the world at the tip of Argentina, it’s more than 12,500 kilometres from B.C.), and then boarded the Akademik Ioffe to cross the inclement Drake Passage. We were 18 days on board the ship, which carried a total of 170 souls inclusive of the hardy crew. It wasn’t always easy travelling—even with the distraction of humpback whales feeding within metres of the ship. For those who prefer an adventure to a vacation, however, bouncing on the side of a rubber zodiac while being whisked to South Georgia, the Falkland Islands and Antarctica—the most isolated outposts on the planet—is an easier entree to an elite club of adventurers and explorers than climbing Everest. The icy wilderness of Antarctica is completely enchanting and its formations take on an infinite variety of shapes and sizes. On land, the algid fingers of glaciers reach down to touch the sea, their immense cliffs like pristine rock faces. Because of the prevailing cold, the climate is drier than the Sahara desert—in fact, it’s the driest place on Earth; the weather can change from clear blue skies to gale-force blizzards in a matter of minutes.

The waters surrounding the land mass contain more than 90 per cent of the world’s icebergs and the experience of kayaking among these white giants in aqua-blue seas is surreal. We paddled with only the sounds of our cameras clicking to break the dead silence; above, a solitary snowy-white petrel glided through the air before gracefully landing on sun-kissed crystals of frozen water.

Here, among the albatross and penguins, the whales and seals, the icebergs and the end of the Earth, even the most discriminating observers will be, as penguin-scientist Ron Naveen once noted, quickly transformed into raving anthropomorphics.

Local Knowledge

As managing director of One Ocean Expeditions Inc. and a member of the College of Fellows for the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, Whistler-based Andrew Prossin frequents the Arctic and Antarctic.

What does the future hold for travel in Antarctica?
Antarctica has always been the last untouched wilderness. It’s seen as an exotic destination and appears to be on most peoples’ bucket list. I think we are at the beginning of a place of long-term growth, and it is important for us, the operators, to manage that growth in a safe and environmentally sustainable way.

What are the biggest environmental concerns around travel in this area?
The management of people onshore. At present tourism is very carefully managed from an environmental and safety point of view.

What do you do to build strong team dynamics on an expedition?
It is important to hire a highly capable and diverse group of individuals with complementary personalities. It is crucial that every single person working with One Ocean Expeditions is 100 per cent service-oriented.

What’s the biggest challenge for travel in Antarctica?
The continual resupply of the vessel with the highest-quality provisions and produce. Operating at the end of the Earth, out of some of the world’s most remote ports, can be challenging at best.